Physical contact with students: What teachers can and can't do

Read the advice of TES behaviour expert Tom Bennett on when you can and can’t make physical contact with your pupils.

Here’s a lovely minefield for us to gaily waltz through - physical contact with students. Most teachers are uneasy about the thought of having to physically handle their pupils; the problem that arises from this is that we often overreact. There are many times in teaching when physical contact is not only hard to avoid, it might actually be advisable or required.

When I was a pupil at school I remember a matronly head of year who would stand next to me and hug my head into her bosom, stroking my hair. Honestly, I’m not making it up. These days that kind of behaviour would land you on the front page of the Sunday papers. Mind you, I also had a university tutor who tried to do the same thing while calling me ‘his special boy’, but by my twenties I had learned to smell a rat.

Pupils are not untouchable

Touching a pupil isn’t by itself assault, nor is it battery. This is important; for years, teachers have acted like pupils are untouchable. What does the law say? We have more rights as teachers than you might think. Guidelines issued by the DCSF (as it was then) in April 2010, based on the Apprenticeship, Skills, Children and Learning Act (ASCL) 2009 stated the following:

Teachers are entitled to use ‘reasonable force’ to prevent a pupil doing the following:

    a) Committing a criminal offence (or one that would be a criminal offence for an older person)

    b) Causing damage to property

    c) Causing personal injury

    d) Prejudicing the maintenance of good order and discipline at the school whether during a teaching session or otherwise.

These guidelines apply to teachers, staff members, or anyone authorised by the headteacher to be in control of pupils. The first three clauses deal with circumstances that many responsible adults would feel they should handle anyway; the last one is perhaps surprising for many teachers. We are allowed to use reasonable force to maintain ‘good order’.

Defining ‘reasonable force’

What is ‘reasonable force’? The law is vague, and probably rightly so: any attempt to generate an exhaustive list of circumstances will always be vulnerable to exceptional cases. ‘Reasonable’ is a term that will be tested on an individual case basis.

In this context, force can be used passively for example, standing in front of a student to prevent them entering a class; or it can be active for example, ushering a pupil away from a scene using a hand placed on their back. Force used to restrain pupils would only be reasonable in extreme circumstances, like preventing a fight, or stopping a knife or a punch being thrown.

So, using the advice given above, reasonable force might be employed when:

  • Preventing a lesson from being constantly ruined
  • Preventing another pupil from being injured or attacked
  • Stopping a pupil from vandalising school property
  • Preventing a pupil from misusing school property in a way that is dangerous or destructive

An important proviso to this is that staff shouldn’t put themselves in absurd danger in order to do these things; there is no legal requirement for staff to get involved in fights (nor should there be), and no teacher can be ‘deemed to have failed in their duty of care by not using force to prevent injury if their own safety would be threatened.’

I’d also recommend that you don’t arm wrestle them either. It’s humiliating when they win.